Friday, March 31, 2006

local, sustainable AND organic?

Recently I’ve noticed a buzz about the increased availability of organic vegetables in the produce sections of major marketplaces including big, bad Wal-Mart. I should start by saying that I think the growth of Wal-Mart is an incredibly destructive force in this country that destroys local businesses, increases the dependency of American citizens on foreign imports, drives American jobs overseas, and continues to foster the idea that everything should be cheap and easy regardless of the consequence. I don’t shop there and the introduction of organics won’t change that. Before this piece becomes a full-fledged rant against the monster Sam Walton released on our nation I’ll stop shouting with a story I find tragic on several levels. Thanks to Matt Savinar for the heads up.

Hilton also has personal reasons for his passionate support of Wal-Mart. Several years ago, his late fiancée, Gloria Machado, was battling cancer. She wanted to work but, emaciated and having lost her hair, she had trouble finding a job. "Wal-Mart hired her and let her work around her chemotherapy schedule," Hilton recalls. "Talk about enhancing someone's self-esteem. It made her feel like somebody. They didn't bat an eye if she couldn't make it because her chemo session ran overtime." Machado lost her battle against cancer, but her six months working at the Wal-Mart in Rohnert Park let her "die with a little dignity," Hilton says.
Full story here.

Anyways, back to the organics issue. Wal-Mart and others in the mainstream steam of the shopping experience here in the United States have begun to take advantage of the growing awareness about the benefits of eating organic foods. It seems instinctive that pouring chemicals onto the food we eat would cause negative health effects but it has taken the general public awhile to awaken to this insight. Nevertheless they have and big business wants in. In general I see this as a positive development for the simple fact that more people will be eating better food. Left out of the argument though has been two other important aspects of responsible food production. They are the support of local farming and the support of sustainable practices on those farms. Here are a few possible situations you might run into when buying your food.

Farmer A lives 6 miles outside of town. He provides produce you buy at your local farmers market. He’s not certified organic but doesn’t use commercial pesticides or fertilizers. His seeds aren’t organic but he’s committed to using cover crops and other sustainable practices to build soil for the long term health of his farm. He invites you to visit any time to check out his operation. You do and are impressed.

Farmer B lives in Chile. You don’t know him but his food is certified organic. You purchase it at the chain store grocery right around the corner. When you look up his operation online you notice that his farming practices seem to fall inline with an effort towards sustainability. You don’t know how to verify this though since you aren’t planning a trip to South America any time soon and you’re pretty sure transporting food over thousands of miles isn’t ultimately sustainable what with that pesky peak oil proposition on the horizon.

Farmer C lives two counties away. He operates a farm that is certified organic, “Because they pay more”, he explains and he sells his food through a specialty grocer 20 miles from your home. You are welcome to visit his operation and you do. The farmer is obviously opposed to using chemicals on his farm but ships in large quantities of guano and kelp fertilizer from overseas. He is also in the process of drilling another well as his last one went dry. You mention ideas such as mulching crops to aid in water retention or collecting storm water runoff to use in irrigation but he’s not interested and says he’ll farm here until “it can’t be farmed anymore”.

Who do you buy from? These issues are all important and intertwined. Food produced without chemicals in an organic way is desirable as is food produced near by so as to alleviate massive transportation. Also important is the idea that our farming practices must be repeatable in a way that is sustainable and maintainable for future generations. Very often these practices work together but sometimes decisions must be made in terms of the sacrifice of one for the sake of another. I must mention too that the very definitions of these aspects of food production are themselves in flux and up for debate. What is “organic”?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. After October 21, 2002, when you buy food labeled "organic," you can be sure that it was produced using the highest organic production and handling standards in the world.

Call me cynical but how much do you trust a government label? There have been attempts made by corporations to lobby for reductions in the standards of such labels.

“Organic standards are under assault once again. A sneak attack in Congress in October 2005 potentially opened the door for hundreds of synthetic substances to be used in processed organic foods, without proper scientific review by the organic community. Recent attempts, partly successful, have been made to pack the National Organic Standards Board, the organic community's traditional watchdog over organic standards, with food industry and agribusiness bureaucrats."

As big business tries to cash in on Americans turning towards organic I can certainly see more attempts to do so. We’ll just have to trust our government to protect us (smirk).

How about a definition of local?

Does that mean 10 miles from your dinner table? 100 miles? 1,000? I buy oranges grown in Florida. They don’t grow well in North Carolina. I suppose that’s not too bad- at least not as bad a shipping them twice as far from California. I buy apples from the NC Mountains. That’s less than 200 miles away. That’s better than from upstate New York but couldn’t I grow some in my front yard? Does anybody grow them in my county? Local to me means close by. How close is close though and who sets the standard?

Lastly what practices are sustainable? Some people believe agriculture itself is unsustainable. I believe we’ve made this bed and now we have to find out how to responsibly lie in it. John Jevons recommends 60% of crop lands be dedicated to producing soil amendments but the use of dual purpose seed and grain crops is acceptable to his practices. Do your food producers turn more than half of their crops back into the soil? How about water use; do they divert waterways to irrigate otherwise unfarmable land? Is the idea of shipping food from China to America a sustainable practice? There are many standards floating around and they aren’t always the same. Good stewardship of our Earth and the way we makes food from it can take many forms and be tricky to reduce to a formula or checklist. This argument seems destine to continue.

I wrote this piece to help clarify my thoughts on the currently competing ideas about growing food organically, locally and sustainably. I haven’t come to a conclusion about which is more important. I guess it depends on the criteria you use to critique. Maybe it just best to buy food encrusted with as few chemicals as possible, from as near by as feasible from those producing the food in the manner most sustainable in your eyes. I bet it’s going to take some research.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I sure Sam walton is rolling in
his grave watching what these corporate melonheads have turn
Wal-mart into!